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This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater
(2020)

(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Written by Brian Duffield (who has turned director with forthcoming exploding high schooler flick Spontaneous) and Adam Cozad, Underwater mines the oft-explored subaquatic menace for material, going where Leviathan and Deepstar Six dredged up variable quantities and qualities of sinister marine life before. Here, a drilling operation in the Mariana Trench unleashes deadly terror, devastating the main mining station in the first five minutes and requiring six solitary survivors to try and make it to the surface – by walking across the ocean floor in order to access working escape pods – while dodging a menace that has taken a disliking to all things, well, not Cthulhu-spawned, by the looks of it.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay the picture is that it’s at its most impressive during the opening stages, when there isn’t even a whiff of savage sea creatures. The initial breach of the station is a powerhouse in disaster movie escalation, as Kristen Stewart's Norah struggles to close hatches and make a bid for relative safety with a motley collection of stragglers. Pressure at such depths is the biggest enemy, as Mamoudou Athie discovers – it perhaps isn’t such a retro feature of the picture to relish that the African-American character is the first of the six to meet a grisly end – but anything involving closed spaces, claustrophobia and submergence comes a close second.

It’s also to Eubank’s credit that you’re very rarely conscious of Underwater being shot mostly dry-for-wet. Occasionally, he loses his sure grip on the rudder, with fairly ho-hum establishing shots and a sequence where Norah and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) become separated from couple Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr); this descends into a flurry of confused rendering and action geography (and evidently not intentionally so; it isn’t clear what is happening and to whom). Mostly, though, he’s able to ensure the charted course remains edge-of-the-seat.

The real problem, when it arises, is that the aquatic predators just aren’t very interesting or unique; there was probably more potential when the survivors were wondering if they might be up against a variety of sinister algae than the subsequent reveal that furious fish folk are after them. It’s also to Underwater’s detriment that Eubank decided (after the fact) that he was going to have a Lovecraftian uber-creature calling the shots on rocking the drilling joint. We’ve seen this variant design-wise so many times in the past few years that any sensible director would swear off going there, quite beside the fact that the bigger monster very rarely results in greater tension or higher stakes; more commonly, it leads to narrative burnout.

In terms of the cast, Stewart does well in the lead role, although I wouldn’t overstate the character integrity involved. The establishing of her pessimistic outlook on life, as opposed to her ex’s sunny side up viewpoint, is little more than a glib wrap around, one that just about gives motive to her ensuring those with something to live for – Emily and Liam – make it to the surface, but does nothing to make us invest in their safety (which is crucial in these movies).

Henwick provides Emily with a surplus of nervous energy, but a discussion about pet pooches doesn’t really ingrain her on the mind (or perhaps it does, since I remembered it), while Gallagher Jr makes flat-out zero impression, meaning his presence as a dead weight throughout (they’re stuck dragging his unconscious form around) is simply a chore. Cassel fares much better, but the calls of cliché require the captain to fall. Ditto for the wise-cracking Hudson type (TJ Miller, whose very presence destroys the integrity of the entire movie, according to some of Cancel Culture’s most ardent devotees, but they’d probably be best not watching any media at all, since some suspect party will inevitably be involved in its production somewhere along the line, even if they’re only allegedly suspect).

Like her former co-star Robert Pattison, Stewart has, until recently, charted a commendably marquee-shunning post-Twilight career path, seeking out indie flavours and interesting directors. This and Charlie’s Angels appear to be a conscious break with that. In particular, she seems set on andro chic branding herself here, frequently stripping down to her designer skimpies (surely in consort with Eubank, as she has enough sway over her career to call the shots in that regard). It’s the movie’s equivalent of Ripley cheesecake, only self-engineered. For little obvious reward, it seems, as on the evidence of this and Angels, no one’s much interested in her as a movie star. Which may not be a bad thing; Stewart should probably concentrate on the character path, only taking blockbuster roles when she really needs to.

As for Eubank, regardless of Underwater’s box office, it represents an effective calling card. He and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (frequent collaborator with Gore Verbinski) have created a palpable environment of dank, dripping sets and claustrophobic intensity. Lovely pressure suit designs too. Give him a good screenplay (probably not one penned with his brother) and he’ll comfortably rise into the big leagues.


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